Cathay Pacific: "service makes all the difference"

By David Flynn, October 23 2014

As Qantas and Virgin Australia join the growing list of airlines adopting spacious next-gen business class seats, a senior Cathay Pacific executive says that service or 'soft product' is becoming the key area where airlines can stride ahead ahead of their competitors.

Read: Qantas reveals new 'Business Suite' for Airbus A330

"Soft product is increasingly a differentiator" suggests Cathay Pacific Director of Corporate Development James Barrington.

"Yes, you've got to have the 'hard product' to be competitive, that's the table stakes" Barrington tells Australian Business Traveller at an event to mark the airline's 40th anniversary of flying non-stop from Hong Kong to Sydney.

"Obviously if you can get a better hard product than anybody else, that's a good thing."

"But particularly in business class arena, once the seat is flat and it's got space and movies, there's a limited amount of extra things you can do on top of that. So the differentiator becomes the service, and how the staff interact with the passengers."

In Cathay Pacific the service standard is carefully calibrated to suit each cabin, Barrington reveals.

"In the first class cabin we have people who are what I call 'Chairman-esque'" Barrington says.

"They like to be left alone to read a book or sleep. Sometimes they'll call the cabin attendant but but mostly they want to be left alone."

"In business class we generally have a lot of ‘road warriors' working in flight, using their laptop, who want very attentive service and being served all the time."

"In the economy cabin we try speed up the meal service so we can give people a good meal and then clear it away fast enough so they can enjoy the inflight entertainment, which is a great way to get through a 14 hour flight."

Also read: Cathay Pacific readies 'brand refresh'

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David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2012

Total posts 582

Consistently good service is a better thing to strive for than inconsistently great service.

This is a problem that many '4-star' airlines struggle with. Getting off a flawless flight and transiting onto a flight with poor/average service has the potential to ruin the passenger's overall perception as well as discourage future bookings.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 May 2013

Total posts 73

I fly to the USA once a year and recently took VA for the first time (always been QF). Whilst VA's on-board product, mainly food and IFE is a little below QF, the service from the cabin crew on both legs was absolutely flawless. At first I thought it was a fluke, that I must've just grabbed a good crew on the way over. I was pleased to find the crew on the return leg were just as great. For years now the QF crew have simply been going through the motions. 

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

In fairness to Qantas staff, they don't exactly have a happy work environment, with relations between senior management and people in the front line often fraught.

VA doesn't suffer the same problem, which no doubt helps keep a positive attitude. If I had to choose between Borgetti or Joyce as my leader, I'd know who'd I choose.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

19 Feb 2014

Total posts 451

United Airlies take note.

I wonder if any business schools out have done research on the factors that effect the delivery of "soft product". Factors such as:

  • Organisational structure of cabin crew (Flat (QF/BA) vs Tier (SQ))
  • On board management techniques of Cabin Supervisor/ CSM
  • Crew turnaround time
  • Method of allocating roster (Random vs Seniority preference)
  • Method of allocating task and allocation of cabin duties

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

There's no specific academic studies I'm aware of that get to that depth in the airline business (although I imagine that internal studies with an airline have been done by various managements), but there are plenty of more generalised customer service studies that point to huge benefits of unexpected gestures (which are often no-cost/minimal-cost) to customer retention/loyalty.

You see this used by some airlines in interactions with their elite FFs, such as cabin crew giving elites sitting in Economy things such as wine from premium cabin menu, premium class headphones, etc.

But, by and by, this incredible customer service leveraging technique doesn't get used enough, or as appropriately as it should.

gippsflyer,

I'm talking more about the cabin crew's motivation and eagerness on field. Some people rightly point out that cabin crew may just go through the motions.

I want to identify the factors that make them tick and I want to help airlines understand how to emulate these factors. I doubt it comes down to pay, as much as the cabin crew unions would like you to believe.

I would imagine this to be a topical research area for organisational behaviour experts.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

Hi TheRealBabushka,

You are right about pay not being a motivating factor, the research shows salary is more of a hygiene factor (that is, it is an aggravator if too low, but excessive amounts rarely motivate and can even trap unhappy people in jobs, such as noted in the Fly In-Fly Out mining industry).

If you are particularly interested in motivational factors for cabin crew (rather than efficiency factors), it'll reflect those shared in all other industries:

  • Individual input is valued, and job design and procedure is a shared task (not just top down controlled);
  • Recognition is based on performance and skill only; and
  • Underperformance is addressed, with no sacred cows, and disruption to social cohesion of team is also given intervention priority.

Work can be fun and rewarding without sacrificing efficiency or quality (indeed, fun and rewarding often leads to outstanding efficiency and quality). This is especially so in the cabin crew world, which tends to attract fun loving, outgoing people. OB research is oft poorly implemented in the workplace sadly, because it's hard for entrenched powers to share some of their real decision making powers.

Thanks gippsflyer,

What a thoroughly insightful post! 

What are your thoughts of shareholder agitation to compel management to review their OB practices, in the face of entrenched powers?

Given the real benefit to a business' bottom line, should institutional shareholders be at the forefront of OB improvements, instead of allowing traditional power brokers (the unions) intervening and corrupting the debate and direction of change towards their self-serving ends?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

The difficulty is that board composition and retention is generally controlled by institutional shareholders (who make up the bulk of the share register), and generally institutional shareholders don't rock the boat unless profits are diving, or there is gross incompetence.

Individual shareholders generally can only be mildly annoying at AGMs, at best, and usually are unable to influence corporate strategy. And ultimately, even with board pressure, groupings within organisations often resist reform if means they might have less control than they traditionally had.

It's an often cited problem, that anti-competitive practices get entrenched because "it is considered all too hard" to implement cultural change in the face of vested interest groups within organisations. There is often much benefit from being a new organisation, because you can get it right first time, rather than trying to reform existing organisational structures in a mature entity.

Unions, too, put their interests before than of any member or group of members. And it's easier to say (and prove) I got you a $2 an hour raise, than I've helped make your work environment more enjoyable.

30 Aug 2013

Total posts 448

Wouldn't 'road warrior' working on board want to be left alone too? I would have thought F pax would be half 'Chairmanesque' who have paid for their seat and aren't so impressed by a glass of champagne and the other half points upgraders that want to experience every single part of the flight and want everything?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jun 2013

Total posts 367

I give preference to the airline with the best service not the best seat ,it is a bonus when you get both! In business of First. Looking forward to traveling on CX more often

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Jun 2013

Total posts 367

Ops should be business or first.

DK
DK

30 May 2011

Total posts 38

Found that service on CX in economy is very fast paced, polite and efficient just like the service culture on the ground in HK. Sometimes it can be a bit too rushed even for long flights from Australia to HK (which apparently they consider regional flight?), made me feel that Qantas service is actually quite decent and relaxed, reflecting the service culture we have here (some fellow Australians are just way too critical of the national carrier).

02 Sep 2013

Total posts 12

I acutally like the rushed service..... and both legs were overnight (from SYD to HKG and back).... make time for sleep....

Also i flew EK from BKK to SYD, and dinner wasn't served untill 3 hours into the flight, and then breakky 2 hours before landing, unlike CX which is was like an hour after take off....

I didn't sleep at all on EK, but i had decent sleep on CX

Qantas - Qantas Frequent FlyerJ

19 Apr 2013

Total posts 13

There's something missing in this article... What does Cathay think of its PE passengers.  Maybe not very much which is why Qantas win hands down.

23 Mar 2012

Total posts 92

Was thinking exactly the same thing . The absence of any reference to PE confirms that the cabin is a total afterthought by management  , it certainly feels that way on board .Certainly confirms what most of us think about CX PE  ... Basic !

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

CX has always been a two class system - those at the back and those at the front (premium cabins). It tends to focus its efforts on its Business, First, and Elite FFs.

It was a latecomer to PY, and it still considers it Y+ rather than J- like some other airlines do (again CX's historical regard for premium and non-premium pax was influential here). I think the only reason CX came to the PY party was that it became a demand-driven necessity, but they are still very wary of cannibalising Business class sales.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2012

Total posts 194

If you are considering a J fare on CX you will most certainly not be tempted by the PE/PY offering!  I'm still scratching my head as to why they imagine it warrants twice the price of Economy!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

It's usually price conscious leisure travellers who can't bear to go basic Y, and businesses seeking to curb their travel budgets by putting mid and low level employees into a class that isn't a huge increase in full Y fares (and certainly cheaper than J fare).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2012

Total posts 194

Who ever pays full Y fare? There are plenty of options before you need to do that.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

Large Businesses and Governments often do (well, minus their corporate discount, but then that corporate discount also applies to J fares too), so that bookings can change without penalty (and can be cancelled, if necessary). I frequently flew on full fare working, and occasionally do when travelling privately (if I need flexibility).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2013

Total posts 715

Oh, forgot to add, if CX had a more J- PY (which is priced much lower than standard J fare) they'd have leakage rates from J (which is the last thing they want). Qantas, for example, has suffered some J leakage to PY, because it's PY has a number of J style benefits (indeed, it is modelled on old J style seating, offers J style meals, has an intimate cabin feel with a cut above FAs).

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2012

Total posts 194

The CX spin machine is certainly in overdrive this week! What is obvious is that the focus is on their First and Business class passengers only. Mr James Barrington despairs of how he can make that experience even better since it is so fab already, and is hopeful that improved service will do the job. I have always thought the CX cabin crew polite and reasonably efficient, but never what passes here as friendly. Maybe that's an Asian thing.

What is also obvious is that Economy passengers are totally ignored, as are the Premium passengers who slot into a sort of CX twilight zone, where they are not quite Economy and certainly not approaching Biz. That's an area in need of a massive overhaul if they plan on persisting with it. Currently PE is not worth the money they ask.


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